History and Human Genetics: challenges of collaboration

 Writing history is a lot harder than some may realize

John Terrell

UK’s LEADING ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE Current Archaeology has taken a  sympathetic look at the often strained relationship between archaeology and human molecular genetics today.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows firsthand the challenges of writing history that this brief assessment highlights the concerns some archaeologists have voiced that “aDNA is unable to account for the complexity and subtleties of human behavior.”

This brief published commentary ends on a hopeful note. In the years ahead, collaborations between archaeologists and experts working in other sciences will “becoming stronger and more balanced.”

 “So what? Why should I care?”

This same week in May 2018, Scientific American published my own assessment of  the strengths and weaknesses of paleogenetics today focusing on what is being written about Pacific prehistory by David Reich and others. Reich is the author of an enthusiastic overview of aDNA research around the world published this year by Pantheon.

John Terrell on Teop Island, North Solomons, 1969

Here is what I say at the end of this analysis (somewhat shortened in length):

There are two thoughts I want to leave you with.

My first thought is about scientific responsibility. Pacific Islanders have been dealing with foreigners telling them what to do and how to do it ever since Europeans began sailing around the Pacific in the 16th century. Are we now committed to telling them also what was their history? Why would we want to do this? The days of European colonialism are over, aren’t they? Or are they?

The second thought is this one. Call them “populations” or call them “races,” it makes no difference. As modern molecular genetics has now shown us in remarkable detail, we are all 99.9 percent the same. It may be conventional wisdom to think we humans come in different kinds called races, populations and the like. A statistic like this one, however, ought to be enough to convince anyone willing to listen that we don’t come in kinds whatever you want to call them.

Hence the apparent willingness of more than a few geneticists today to use words like populations, migrations and admixture when they are writing about ancient DNA and the past does more than just misinform the rest of us. As reviews of Reich’s book, both pro and con, have sometimes scoldingly observed, when scientists talk this way, they can sound like they are doing racial profiling. Apparently, it can be hard for some folks to see that what my grandfather called hogwash may not just be something unbelievable. Hogwash can also be words and stories that are socially, politically and, yes, historically misleading. Maybe even dangerous.

Leave a Reply